In the deliberations over humanity and its perceived uniqueness, a link is frequently made between our ability to support a rich, diverse culture and the origin of complex human behaviour. Yet what is often overlooked in our view of these two, clearly connected phenomena is the thread that weaves them together: the ability to coordinate behaviour. We need only look at the products of our culture, from language to religion, to see that any variant we may deem successful is contingent on coordinating the behaviour of two or more individuals. Still, what is truly illuminating about this ability is that, far from being a uniquely human feature, the ability to coordinate behaviour is ubiquitous throughout the many organismal kingdoms.
I just finished watching this great BBC documentary about swarm intelligence. Ignoring the presenter’s attempt to inspire fear in us mere humans, with ominous suggestions of a great red fire ant invasion, swarm intelligence is basically the notion that swarms of creatures (such as the aforementioned ant) work as a collective consciousness. It makes intuitive sense: more minds = more processing power. Of course, these species have been shaped by natural selection to function in this eusocial manner, although whether or not we’re discussing inclusive fitness, superorganisms or something else remains outside the programme’s scope. In fact, the term swarm intelligence doesn’t seem to be a conventional term amongst biologists; too many anthropomorphic connotations no doubt.
Sadly, it is was only available on the BBC until 21.39 GMT, today! yesterday. So get watching. Instead, I’ll leave you with the first youtube video I could find about swarm intelligence, which is actually nothing to do with animals and more to do with computing, networks and information management: